It is the year 2570. The United Nations Space Command is holding their ground in the war against the reassembled Covenant far better than they had during their previous conflicts. The alliance humanity had formed with the honourable Sangheili was named the Interspecies Union, and it was a force that was unmovable by the many enemies encountered by both species alike in the past few decades. With the creation of SPARTAN-III Delta Company, the army of nearly 3000 Spartans is practically unstoppable. With the UNSC expanding its colonies throughout the universe once again, the supersoldiers are always present whenever there is a danger presented by the Covenant.
At the moment, the IU's greatest concern is locating the San'Shyuum leader of the Covenant, the Prophet of Intuition. Following the recent disband of the Sangheili separatist group, the Fallen, it became easier for the UNSC to focus their efforts on defeating the Covenant. It was completely unquestionable to many where the loyalties of the Deltas lay when it came to the fight against the aliens. But Felix Martel had his doubts. Not long ago, he had caught the Deltas' deputy executive, Wings-D339 communicating directly with the High Prophet himself, claiming that there was an alternative to the fighting by seeking peace with the Covenant. He did not find favour with the plan; after all, the war between the UNSC and the Covenant was unlikely to be forgotten, and with the present knowledge of both factions' known whereabouts, it would have been near impossible to keep peace.
Word has reached humanity about a new faction, rumoured to be comprised of Sangheili who still believed in the delusive Great Journey. The UNSC currently has no knowledge of their intentions, and whether they would ally with the Interspecies Union, the Covenant, or break away as another separatist group altogether. A group of UNSC forces have been called to the ancient Forerunner planet of C329t, now inhabited by the unknown Sangheili.
But there are also others who begin to take an interest in the profits offered by a trip to Beta-14. The abundance of Forerunner technology are widespread throughout the planet, and almost completely unguarded. Rebels, pirates, and outsiders are willing to take their own share of the artifacts for their own gain, and a certain outcast Spartan is given a task that could expose him to his old enemies once again, but if he is successful, the potential rewards would be prodigious. The reception to these heists will undoubtedly spark resentment from the UNSC, and perhaps the other Sangheili.
Only time will tell whether the mission will end in resolution or bloodshed...
Captain Gregory Montrose looked through the transparent main screen to stare at the planet that was looming closer through the viewport. Although in reality it was the ship that was flying towards it, the skipper still felt as if there was something drawing his vessel towards what the UNSC designated as Beta-14. Disconcertingly, it looked normal. Too normal to suggest at what had once resided on its surface.
The Forerunners had once inhabited this planet, from countless aeons ago. This had been one of the few places that hadn't been found by the all-consuming Flood parasite, but the inhabitants had died all the same upon the first activation of the Halo array, having been outside what the Forerunners called "the Maginot Sphere". Beta-14 was one of the planets that were cordoned off by the Flood's linear forces. Led by the rampant Forerunner AI 032 Mendicant Bias, the tactic could trap multiple inhabited colonies at a time, and press slowly inward until its victims were located and infected. Apparently the parasite hadn't made it here before the activation.
"Sir? We're on approach to Beta-14. Orders?"
At the sound of the ship's AI, Cassidy, Montrose snapped out of his reverie. He focused his gaze on the actual readings being projected on the main screen. Their vector was standard for a nonhostile landing on a planet, and the numbers all checked out.
"Carry on," he said. "Communications, try to pick up something from the surface. See if you get a lock on the Elites that are supposed to be here."
"Yes sir," the bridge officer replied.
Their mission was simple; find some intel about what these aliens wanted, and why they separated from the ones in the Interspecies Union. At the moment, they hadn't shown any hostility towards humans or other Sangheili. Montrose wasn't even sure that they had a military. But apparently these guys had pieced together some Forerunner navigation data that brought them here, and had been searching for...something. No one knew how long they were here, or where else they went. But it was worth staking out all the same, in case things turned nasty in the future.
All of which would've been normal, the Captain thought, Had we not brought a dozen warships here as well as several teams of Spartans. To anyone on the surface who had seen the task unit's arrival, it would have looked like a small invasion. But they know who we are. The brass had even decided to keep spare ships in reserve in case things got really nasty. And if even then the UNSC couldn't hold them down, the Sangheili would be contacted to see what they could do.
Have we decided not to let our guard down after everything we lost during the Human-Covenant war? Or are we just plain paranoid?
Not that this was a full-scale military operation. A handful of scientists, engineers, and other assorted civilians had volunteered to come along to lend a hand as well. They were getting quite a fair pay for this job, considering the relative simplicity of it all. Then again, there was the chance you'd go and don't make it back.
"We have to see the whole picture here," Rear Admiral Richard Lash had commented. "It's always better to do it the easy way first." Montrose secretly agreed that the Sangheili would probably take to sitting down and talking better than they would having a line of Marines brandishing guns and glaring daggers at them.
All in all, not your average mission.
1300 Hours, October 17rd, 2570 (6 days previously)
After a while, one dive is just like any other.
This was a maxim that David Kahn and other men of his ilk learned quickly in the mercenary trade. At some point in history the various lowlifes of the universe had made a collective decision to host the majority of their dealings within taverns and bars, and so if you wanted to get anywhere in the business you had to spend a good amount of time in such places whether you wanted to or not.
Not that David particularly disliked bars. They had a certain earthy quality that was hard to find in more refined hangouts, and the clientele themselves were well worth the grime and general seediness. David had lost count of the many fights he’d sat through, watching and drinking calmly while the whole room went to hell around him. But these moments were only worthwhile when you were in the mood to enjoy them, and today he was here on business. David never allowed himself time to enjoy much of anything when he was on business, and unfortunately he was on business a good part of the time.
He’d been busy these past few months on jobs that might have been exotic to some but by this point were little more than mundane chores to him. Assassinating a gang leader here, smuggling an illegal weapons shipment here, and more or less doing the galaxy’s dirty work for it were just part of the job for him now. He hadn’t taken an interesting contract in ages. Of course, this was not necessarily something to get too hung up about. The interesting assignments usually tended to be the most dangerous ones as well, and even someone with David’s reputation didn’t like taking chances too often.
Whatever this contact has to offer had better be good, David mused, fingering the glass of water before hand. He’d been looking forward to kicking back and getting some alcohol into his system today, but that plan had been shot to pieces by a message from a local contact here on the Outer colony of New Ceylon. The man said he had a job offer from another source, and that meant today was another business days. David, like any other professional, made a point of not imbibing liquor on business days.
As he raised the glass to his lips and took a swig, the mercenary saw a familiar face push their way through the crowd and head over to the corner where he was sitting. Vincent Brown, the most prominent middleman on New Ceylon, reached the table as David was lowering his glass.
With a nod in greeting, David motioned for Vincent to sit down. “What’ll it be today, Vincent, straight talk or code?”
Vincent (though David doubted that this was the man's real name) snorted and took a seat. “Law enforcement’s never been tight around here, Kahn. You of all people should know that.”
“It’s been awhile.” David scratched the stubble on his chin and eyed the middleman. “But I’m glad to be able to have a real conversation without some security cam bringing the whole police force down on us. Now, what did you drag me out here for?”
“Same old David Kahn,” Vincent muttered with a small grin. “Always getting right to the point.”
“Time is money,” David pointed out. “And in this line of work, money is pretty much everything there is. So stop the bantering and get down to business. What’s the job?”
Vincent produced a small handheld computer from his pocket and set it on the table before him. “I think you’re going to like this one, Kahn. I’ve looked it over, and it’ll be crazy dangerous. But the client specifically asked for you, and he’s willing to pay a lot.”
David raised a single eyebrow. “Now that’s a phrase I hear all the time. Define ‘a lot’.”
Vincent leaned forward conspiratorially. “We’re talking in the millions here.”
A rare smile slashed across the veteran mercenary’s face. “Now you’re talking. Tell me more about this client...”
Half an hour later, David exited the bar looking thoughtful. Withdrawing a computer of his own from his overcoat, he flicked it open and began punching in letters.
This job would definitely be worth all the hardship it was certain to incur. The problem was, it would be very, very hard. David Kahn had not survived this long in the mercenary business by refusing to ask for help when needed, and now he definitely needed help. Preferably help that was skilled and tough, but at the same time easy to manipulate.
His eyes scanned the list of names that appeared on his screen, a list compiled by the various galactic lowlifes who were paid to make it their business to know where people were at all times. The contents of this particular list were the names of any guns for hire of any standing in the underworld who were currently in the system.
David eliminated from the list every name that was not currently located on New Ceylon. That left just one entry. Unlike most of the others, this name was not a traditional name and surname. This one was composed of only one word: Mordred.
After eyeing that one name for several seconds, David pocketed the computer and headed away at a brisk pace looking even more thoughtful then before. New Ceylon, being the less-than-developed hive of scum and villainy that it was, did not have much in the way of public transportation (A deficiency that David didn't mind at all; trains and taxis were perfect places for assassinations.) and so he spent nearly half an hour making his way down the city's dirty streets towards a large block of apartments.
He had never been here before, and wasn't quite sure what to expect. He stepped through the hunk of metal that some desperate designer must have thought could pass for a gateway arch and cast his gaze about the base of the apartment complex. The area was practically coated with grime and dirt; a trio of shabbily dressed men were seated in front of an open apartment playing some sort of card game. They looked up for a moment as he approached, then turned back to their game.
David checked the address listed on his computer once more. Did Mordred really live in a shithole like this?
According to the information compiled by some of the best spies and informants in the criminal world, he did. With a curt nod to the card players, David found a stairway leading up to the apartments on the second and third floors. It was time to pay one of his less than successful colleagues a visit.
His head felt like it was splitting open. Still groaning, he pushed the blanket off of his body and sat up on his makeshift bed (in this case a small and dirty couch). Clutching his temples with his hand, he tried rocking his body back and forth to ease the pain. It didn’t work.
“What the hell?” he moaned. “What time is it?”
“Seven thirty in the morning in this time zone,” answered a female voice, its tone scornful. “You really let yourself go last night, didn’t you?”
“My head,” he muttered. “I didn’t think I.... how much beer did I drink last night, anyway?”
“Wow. You were so drunk you didn’t even know you weren’t even drinking beer. You couldn’t find any at the store, so you bought sake instead, remember? Rice wine?”
“I did? How much did I...”
“Three bottles. Three bottles of undiluted rice wine. Do you know how much alcohol is in that stuff?”
“Can you shut up for a minute Diana?” he gasped rubbing his temples and trying to lie back down.
“Well I was answering your questions,” she retorted. “And I’m not the one who decided to drink himself into a stupor last night. You deserve that hangover.”
“Go to hell,” he muttered blearily. “I needed something to do.”
“Wow,” the AI muttered. “We’ve hit an all new low. You got drunk last night because you were bored?”
“Jesus...” He wished his head would just go ahead and explode rather than holding in all the pain. “I can’t even remember buying the stuff. Were did I even get sake?”
“I don’t know. The same place where you couldn’t find any regular beer, I guess, and since they couldn't have bothered asking for I.D., I'm going to guess it was that delightful convenience store down the street. What possessed you to go out and spend money anyway? We’re low on funds as it is without you blowing the rest on drinks and cigarets.”
The pain subsided somewhat, allowing him to sit up again and survey the apartment room. Beer bottles—or in this case sake bottles—and cigaret butts littered the area around the couch, while the rest of the small room was covered in food wrappers, armor components, and weapon parts. A partially-disassembled assault rifle rested on the room's single table, along with its composite parts, cleaning supplies, and several clips of ammunition. All of the windows had been boarded up, the electronic components that had once powered their shutter functions torn out and scavenged for more important uses. Apart from the scattered equipment, the apartment's only other distinctive feature was a small pile of humming computer equipment in its far corner. “It isn’t my fault we can’t get a job,” he growled weakly. “People around here just don’t appreciate our talents.”
“You mean my talents,” Diana shot back through the computer equipment's speakers. “I do all the real work. You’re just the muscle.”
“Whatever.” Throwing his blanket aside, he staggered to his feet, which brushed against some stray bullet casings and sent them rolling across the uncarpeted floor. “Christ, this is place is a shithole.”
“It was already a shithole when we started paying rent,” Diana observed. “With you living here, it’s turned into something a few levels worse.”
With a groan, Simon-G294, ex-SPARTAN-III, ex-terrorist, and currently the mercenary known as Mordred, picked up a sake bottle with his single hand and squinted at it. In the place where his left arm should have been there was instead a small, metal docking port for a mechanical prosthetic, which lay idle amongst the rest of his equipment “Wow, this is some cheap booze.” He turned and waved it at a small pile of computer equipment in the corner.
“See?" He called out, still working off the effects of his drinking binge. "It was cheap! That means I didn’t waste too much money on it!”
The hologram of a teenage girl formed from a projector sitting on top of the equipment. She wore a short skirt, scarf, and jacket over a white undershirt, an unusually complex avatar for an artificial intelligence. “You still spent money that you didn’t need to on stuff that rots your brain and liver. From now on, you don’t buy anything without clearing it with me first.”
She cocked her head, her blond-tinged hair falling about her holographic shoulders, and smirked. “By the way, you look completely disgusting. It’s a wonder you didn’t throw up on yourself last night, but anyone looking at you would probably think that you did.”
Simon looked down. He was wearing a patchy pair of shorts and nothing else. His bare chest was covered in the spiderweb of scars he’d received from a bomb accident during his training as a SPARTAN-III, which had now been augmented by spare bits of food and cigarette ash. “Oh.”
“Do you plan on cleaning this dump up any time soon?”
“Which do you want me to clean first, myself or the room?”
“Try washing yourself first, dumbass. I don’t even have a nose and I can tell that you’re making the air in here unbreathable.”
“Fine, mom.” Simon made his way towards the bathroom, still rubbing his head.
A shower in the apartment’s tiny washroom, which was just as filthy and untidy as the rest of the establishment, managed to wake Simon up completely, and ten minutes later he was on his hands and knees in the main room picking up the odds and ends left scattered on the floor. He’d attached his prosthetic left arm after the shower and dressed in a ragged pair of jeans and a dirty grey shirt.
“I may be the muscle,” he growled. “But at least I can get where I want to go without having someone carry me there. And I can clean up, unlike some people who just sit around and give orders all the time.”
Diana sniffed contemptuously. “I don’t make messes, so I don’t need to clean up.”
“You are so immature.”
“It takes one to know one, dumbass.”
Simon was opening his mouth to continue the argument when there was a frantic beeping amidst the computer equipment housing Diana. He froze.
“Someone just set off the pressure sensor outside,” Diana said quietly, all trace of banter gone.
Simon seized a pistol from the floor nearby and moved over to the door, keeping low in case any snipers were planning to shoot through the boarded-up windows. “Who the hell’s visiting us at this time of day?”
“The police, criminals, the UNSC, and all the other dangerous people we’ve managed to piss off spring to mind,” Diana muttered.
Simon was breaking out in a cold sweat. If it was anyone looking to attack him, he was almost definitely done for. No one walked in the front door of a target’s apartment without backup, and there was no time to assemble his armor and weapons from the mess around the room. There was very little chance he’d be able to take an organized group of attackers with no armor and just a pistol to defend himself with.
There was an authoritative rap on the door, making Simon frown. Hit men did not generally knock on their target’s front door. Maybe it was just some police officer doing some investigation. He could probably talk his way out of that. Still, it paid to be cautions...
“Who is it?” he called through the locked door, making sure his pistol’s safety catch was off as he did so.
“It's Kahn. David Kahn,” replied a muffled voice from the other side. Muffled, but still familiar.
With a grunt of surprise, Simon rose and unlocked the door. Keeping his pistol at the ready, he slowly pulled it open.
David Kahn stood on the apartment’s threshold dressed in a black overcoat and business clothes. He looked appraisingly at the pistol that Simon still held in his prosthetic hand, but made no move to draw one of his own. “Still as paranoid as ever I see. Mind letting me in? It’s getting cold out here.”
Simon didn’t move. “What are you doing here?” he asked suspiciously. Their professional partnership, which had marked the beginning of his mercenary career, had ended two years ago. Kahn had cut him loose on fairly neutral terms, but that didn’t mean the man was friendly. No one was in this line of work, especially when you were also a traitor to the UNSC.
“Let me in and I’ll tell you.”
Simon still remained where he was. “Like you said, I’m paranoid. Just give me the basics before I let you in my apartment.”
Kahn sighed. “Fine, have it your way. I have a job offer for you that involves quite a bit of money. Is that good enough, or do I need to show you an engraved invitation first?"
After another moment’s hesitation, Simon stepped aside and let his former partner into the apartment. Kahn glanced around at the scattered pieces of equipment and the room’s general state of disorder.
“Looks like you’re in need of money anyway,” he observed. “Or is this how you like to live regardless?”
“Very funny.” Simon threw himself down on the couch. He was still holding the pistol, though it was no longer pointed at Kahn. “Hurry up and tell me about this job so I can either agree to it or tell you to go to hell. Why are you asking me anyway? I thought you didn’t like working with me.”
Kahn waited for Simon to offer him a seat, and when the invitation didn’t come he shrugged and sat down on the room’s coffee table, being sure to wipe away a layer of grime and shifting the assault rifle components before doing so. “I ended the partnership because you couldn’t keep your emotions in check during the jobs we took on together. I couldn’t stick with someone like that, not if I wanted to make it in this line of work. But I feel safe working with you this time because it doesn’t involve Venter, the HLF, or anything else related to whatever the hell you did before doing stuff like this.”
Scowling, Simon ran a hand through his messy tangle of black hair. “Fine. So you figured I could cut it this time around?”
“So long as you keep your head and follow my orders, yes. I could use a second gun to watch my back, and your AI should—”
“My name’s Diana,” cut in the AI in question irritably.
“—Diana should be extremely useful in finding the person we’re supposed to collect,” finished Kahn without missing a beat.
“OK, so what’s the job.”
Kahn leaned forward and rested his chin on his fists. “You ever heard of Idat ‘Ostal?”
Simon frowned. “Some Sangheili?”
“Not just some Elite. This guy runs a massive civilian shipping company that runs throughout IU space. He’s one of the richest Elites in the universe; the guy practically owns his own private moon to live on.”
Now Simon was really interested. “So he’s the client?”
Kahn nodded. “This Idat guy has a son, Moru. Now normally Elite kids don’t know who their fathers are, don’t ask me why, but in this case little Moru was raised by his father. Maybe Idat figured he was rich enough to buck tradition, I don’t know. Anyway, Moru’s almost grown up now, and his father wants to succeed him as owner of the shipping company. But Moru doesn’t seem to want that, so he’s run off to join this new movement of Elites thats worrying the UNSC so much. Idat wants us to find Moru and haul his ass back home, and he’s willing to pay us ten million credits if we do.”
There was a pause as the words ten million ran around inside Simon’s head. That was more money than he had ever heard offered up for a job, probably more money than he had ever heard of period. But there was no way Kahn would go for a 50-50 split. “What’s my cut going to be?” he asked slowly.
“Three million,” Kahn replied without hesitating.
“Fuck that. Five million or nothing.”
“Three and a half. I’m providing transportation here.”
“Four and a half. You said that you’d need Diana for this job, that makes us that much more valuable.”
“Four million. Knowing you, you’ll probably hang back and let me do most of the fighting if we run into trouble. Take it or leave it.”
Simon glanced over at Diana’s hologram. The AI tugged at a lock of holographic hair, a signal they’d worked out between them. He turned back to Kahn. “We’ll take it, but I want everything out on the table first. We’re talking about this new Sangheili faction on C329t, right? The one everyone says the UNSC is sending a task force to investigate?”
“Right. But the UNSC itself shouldn’t be much cause for worry. My ship has the best stealth systems money can buy, and they shouldn’t even be looking to cause trouble. If they do find us, Diana can confuse their systems and we can retreat and regroup.”
“I’ve never taken on a UNSC military AI before,” Diana mused. “That should be fun.”
Kahn glanced at her, bemused, before continuing. “The UNSC won’t be the real problem. It’ll be whatever’s waiting for us in this break-away faction’s compound. They probably won’t let us just take one of their own without a fight, so I’m going to rule out any attempts at negotiation. Our best bet will be to use the time when they’re distracted by the UNSC to sneak in, find Moru, and split before they realize what’s going on.”
“Alright,” Simon agreed. “sounds like a plan. But how are we going to find this guy in the first place? The Sangheili aren't that easy to tell apart, and the place is sure to be crawling with ‘em.”
“We’ll have Diana hack their systems and examine any personnel rosters they might have,” Kahn said. “If they have any semblance of organization they’ll have some way of keeping track of their members. We’ll find out where Moru is stationed, get over to him, tranq his ass, and get the hell out of their before they even realize we’re around. Of course, before we do that we’ll have to do some recon around the place to get an idea of the layout. If things go sour with the UNSC before we can locate Moru, our only choice will be to go in guns blazing and play it by ear.”
Simon leaned back on the couch. “Well let’s hope these guys are in a chatty mood. When do we leave?”
Kahn stood and turned towards the door. “Get your gear together and meet me at the shipyard in three hours. I’ll be ready to depart by then.”
As soon as he was gone, Simon turned to face Diana. “So, the hair tug. You want to take the job.”
Diana shrugged. It was an expression that was meant to look innocent, but Simon had learned to know better.. “But we cut and run if things go south. Ten million credits is a lot of money, but it isn't worth dying over.”
Simon nodded. He and his companion had long ago agreed that no sum of money was worth getting killed over. As far as he was concerned, very little was. Still...
“This is David Kahn we’re talking about, not some run-of-the-mill chump,” he pointed out. “If we ditch him, he might come after us to make a point..”
Diana shrugged. “If he survives. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. But more importantly, start getting everything together. I want to kiss this shithole good-bye as soon as possible.”
Simon picked up his SPI helmet from where it lay on the floor and gazed into its battered visor for several moments. He'd been living in this rundown apartment for several months now, and while he and Diana were always complaining about its poor quality, he'd come to appreciate the fact that he actually had something like a home to come back to at the end of every job. Now that a real opportunity had come up, one that promised to set him back on the path to fortune (if not fame), he felt a strange feeling in his gut, one that he hadn't felt for some time...
“What is it?” Diana asked impatiently.
“I don’t know,” Simon muttered, turning the helmet over in his hands. “I just got a weird feeling that I’m never gonna see this place again, and I'm not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
1600 Hours, October 13rd, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar), UNSC military facility, Mare Insularum, Luna, Sol system
"Welcome back, SPARTAN-116," said Luna, the Superintendent-class AI named after the planet it was in charge of. "I was informed that you would not be back for another month."
"Change of plans, Luna," said Felix Martel, pacing the elevator as it took him up the facility. "I got word of a report that sounded urgent. It sounds like they'll need me for this."
"Did your mission to Sanghelios go well? You seem tense."
He didn't reply. The AI was known to be conversational, and he usually enjoyed a bit of banter after finishing a mission, but right now he was troubled by something.
The reason he had left Sanghelios wasn't just because of the report he received. He had found out six months ago that SPARTAN-D339 was in contact with the Covenant High Prophet of Intuition. Not only that, but they were planning something together. He didn't suspect D339 of treason, which was what had been so unnerving. He didn't know what they were up to, and didn't know whether he should do something about it or not. Despite the fact that his trust in the MCPO was shaken, he knew that the war would take quite a turn for the worst if he allowed D339 to be court-martialled or executed. He had been thinking it over for the last half-year, and finally decided to do some operations away from Phoenix Team. It would give him some time to think clearly.
Not that the report had been a small issue. According to what he had heard, some Sangheili had formed a separate faction and were currently up to something on an uninhabited Forerunner planet. Currently, it was almost normal to hear about the aliens breaking away from the military, or their skirmishes and assassinations. But this new group numbered in strength to almost that of the Fallen, which had been defeated by Phoenix Team a year ago.
The elevator reached the forty-fifth floor, and Felix stepped out of the lift and into a room. There were various officers sitting around desks and having discussions, AIs flitting around the room carrying out tasks, and NCOs walking around carrying out tasks. He walked to the other end of the room, where the brass was, and saluted. "SPARTAN-116 reporting for duty, sirs!"
Rear Admiral Richard Lash looked up. "At ease. I trust your mission at Sanghelios was successful, Commander?"
"As you can see, I've granted your request to investigate on this new group of Sangheili. If you've handed in your report already, please wait for the briefing. We're going to begin as soon as everyone shows up."
Felix saluted again, and walked over to an adjacent wall. He stood next to it, looking around to see who else was present. He recognized Captain Gregory Montrose, Commanders Evelyn Feng and Seth Dunston, and Captain Julian Waters, who served as Lash's executive officer when they were assigned to the Prowler Dusk. Overall, there were about a dozen officers.
A few more showed up, then the doors closed with a hiss. Rear Admiral Dante Kirtley called for everyone's attention, and silence settled over the room.
Lash stood up. "Thank you for coming, everyone. As you've all heard, we're rallying a fleet to investigate on a new faction of Sangheili residing at a planet 68,000 light years from Epsilon Indi. We need resources, scientists, vehicles, and soldiers."
Waters raised his hand. "Are we expecting hostility, sir?"
"We're still uncertain. At this point, the UNSC is willing to take all precautions in case this faction turn out to be unfriendly. We need to see what they found at the planet, and maybe our scientists can tell us about it. Here are the details on the mission:
"About 100,000 years ago, the planet was inhabited by the Forerunners, translated into the name 'C329t'. When their war against the Flood began, they were either taken to the safety of the Maginot Sphere, or died when the Halo array activated. But it's highly unlikely that it was taken by the Flood. ONI has tagged the planet as 'Beta-14' for the time being. Most likely, the reason the Sangheili went there is to search for Tier-1 artifacts left behind, although the circumstances of their separation from the Interspecies Union is as of yet unknown.
"What we do know, however, is that they call themselves 'The Path Walkers'. This may be an indication of their beliefs in the Covenant's Great Journey, which is precisely why we're taking a task force in our investigation. They may not take kindly to our appearance, seeing as we destroyed not only one of the Halos, but the Ark as well.
"This will be our first encounter with these Path Walkers. We don't know a lot about them, but they know a lot about us. It's likely that they have quite a bit of information regarding the Interspecies Union. They could even be expecting us. We may be caught by surprise, if worst comes to worst. If you want to be part of the fleet...all you have to do is volunteer."
Every hand in the room shot up. A hint of a smile played on Lash's lips.
"Very well, then. We will set out for Beta-14 in 5 days. Until then, we should prepare. Dismissed."
0900 Hours, October 14rd, 2570, aboard the independent vessel Starkiller
David had just finished the preflight checks in the cockpit of his personal ship, Starkiller, when the communications indicator beeped. Flipping the com system on, he asked, “Who is this?”
“It’s Mordred,” was the terse response. “Mind opening up? I’m in full gear out here and people are starting to stare.”
Shaking his head, David switched on the Starkiller’s external monitors and saw Mordred standing alone outside the ship’s main access hatch. Just as he’d said, the young mercenary was fully kitted out in his battered, greying SPI outfit. With a large duffel in one hand, an MA6 assault rifle in the other, and weapons and equipment strapped to his armor, Mordred was certainly lucky that most of the law enforcement officers on New Ceylon had been bribed, intimidated, or otherwise convinced to turn a blind eye to the sight of heavily armed individuals roaming the streets. David turned to another panel and punched in the code to open the main hatch. As soon as Mordred was inside, he entered the same code to close it.
The Starkiller was far from being an elegant ship. Aesthetics had never been on David’s mind when he crammed the former cargo hauler with as many upgrades, both legal and otherwise, as its systems could be modified to handle. With twin engines straddling either side of its bulky main section, which consisted of a small amount of living space set over a much larger cargo bay, a bulbous tail section that housed the ship’s Slipspace drive, and a cockpit extending out the front end, the Starkiller had often been compared to a giant metal bug. The hauler itself hadn’t been much of a looker when David had bought it; back then he’d just needed something to get him from system to system and, low on funds, he’d gone for one of the cheapest crates on the market. Now, with him having to slip past government ships and track down fleeing prey in it more and more often, David needed something more.
The sound of footsteps in the short, narrow hall leading to the cockpit caused David to swivel the pilot’s chair over to face the source of the noise. Mordred stood in the doorway, still in full armor and clutching the duffel and assault rifle.
“You can set those down wherever they won’t get in the way,” David told him, indicating the rifle and bag. “And take your damn helmet off. No one’s in here besides us, there’s no reason for us not to talk face to face.”
Lowering the duffel gently to the metal floor and placing the assault rifle on top of it, Mordred tugged his helmet off. His mane of black hair was just as unkempt as it had been back in his apartment; the only thing different about his angular face was the strip of white bandage wrapped around his head.
David raised an eyebrow. “Still covering the marks then? I take it you covered your chest as well?”
They’d only been partners for six months—Mordred had needed a leg up in the mercenary business and David had seen the usefulness in an extra gun and an A.I.—but that had been plenty of time for David to learn all sorts of quirks and oddities about his companion. The extreme reluctance to go into public without his face covered was one that David attributed to whatever past he seemed to share with the Insurrection, especially when he remembered how reluctant Mordred had been to take on jobs that involved the UNSC in any direct fashion. The habit of wearing a bandage to cover up an ugly, horizontal slash across his forehead and wrapping up his scar-covered chest with more of them was one of the more puzzling ones, but you ran into people like that in this line of work.
Looking again at Mordred’s hard, angular face, David was reminded of how young the mercenary really was. He couldn’t be any older than twenty, and David suspected he might be younger. For all of his shortcomings—the inability to put his feelings and emotions aside that had led David to dissolve their partnership, the cautious methods that bordered on timidity when he was collected, his relatively poor accuracy when it came to precision shooting—Mordred was still a skilled fighter, far better than David remembered being at that age.
What the hell was I doing—and thinking—when I was that young? David mused absently. It all seemed so long ago, part of a murky past that no one—himself included—was interested in digging up. There wasn’t much to be gained from digging through Mordred’s past either. So long as he and Diana did their jobs and didn’t drag complications into the mission, they had the right to keep whatever secrets they wanted to keep.
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times,” Mordred said, his stiff voice shaking David back into the present. “My scars chafe under my armor. I have to cover them up.”
“Just go with it,” chimed in Diana’s voice, emanating from Mordred’s prosthetic left arm. Mordred had stripped the left gauntlet and arm-guards from his armor to completely expose the synthetic limb, which Diana used as a base from which she could interface with the rest of his armor. “You’ll never get him to admit that the only reason he does it is that he thinks it’s cool.”
Mordred rolled his eyes and stepped forward into the cockpit, but stopped when he saw David’s hand fall to his hip. David, who had been reaching for a pack of cigarettes in his pocket, looked from Mordred’s gaze to the loose sidearm holster he wore along with his plainclothes.
“Relax,” David told his temporary partner. “If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it back at your apartment. So long as you don’t give me a reason to start shooting, we won’t have a problem. Just like old times.” Shaking his head at his use of such a nostalgic term, David withdrew a cigarette and offered it to Mordred, who accepted it after a moment’s hesitation.
“So what do we do now?” Mordred passed the cigarette through his fingers—the ones that were still flesh and blood—without lighting it.
“We’ll be taking off in about fifteen minutes.” David turned back to the cockpit’s computers but made sure that he could still see Mordred out of the corner of his eye. Regardless of whether they’d worked together before or not, trust was a gift that he rarely gave. So far this policy had served him well. “The Slipspace drive onboard this thing’s been upgraded since you were last onboard, but it will still take us a few days to get to where we need to go. I suggest you settle in back in the living quarters, maybe run some checks on your gear.”
“You know,” remarked Diana from Mordred’s arm. “If you let me handle all the Slipspace calculations we could get there sooner.”
“If you think I’m letting you into my ship’s systems you’ve got another thing coming.” David replied coldly. “If Mordred doesn’t mind you hitching a ride in his body, that’s one thing. My equipment is another thing all together.”
“Fine,” Diana muttered. From the tone of her voice David could tell she was sulking. “Have it your way.”
David raised an eyebrow at Mordred, who had bent to pick up his things. “Keep her under control, understand? This job’s dangerous enough already without her ego getting in the way.”
For once, Mordred replied before Diana could get off a snippy comment. “She’s a professional, just like we are. She’ll do her job.”
“She’d better.” David turned back to the control panel. “Now hurry up and get settled in. And try not to touch anything that isn’t yours.”
With a grunt of acknowledgement, Mordred picked up his things and strode back down the hall towards the living quarters. David watched him go through one of the mirrors he had positioned above the controls.
Mordred was right. He and Diana were both professionals, regardless of their somewhat patchy success rate and irregularities. If they weren’t, he would never have offered them the job to begin with. Still, they’d have to be at peak performance if they were going to make it out of all this with their quarry—and their hides—intact.
We’re about to waltz our way over to a planet that’s going to have a UNSC blockade over it in a few days, David mused with a grim smile. Then we’re going to piss off a military faction composed of warriors from one of the deadliest species in the galaxy.
Yes, the odds were stacked against them. But David Kahn had built half of his career on beating the odds, and he had no intention of stopping now.
Felix saw the Pelican land in the hangar bay, and fifteen Spartans clambered out. They saluted. "Basilisk, Manticore, and Kobold Team, sir!"
The Lieutenant Commander returned the salute. "Where's Hawk Team? I asked them to take this mission too."
Cody-D1274 shrugged. "We haven't seen Hawk for quite a while. To be honest, sir, the last time was at Carol's funeral."
He frowned. "So they're not here? ONI listed that they were on-duty on Mars."
"We passed by Mars on our way here, Commander. Couldn't find them at all."
"I guess we'll have to do without them, then. Meanwhile, there are some things we need to go over." The Spartan officer told the Pelican pilot to pick up Saber and Katana Teams, and led the Deltas out of the hangar.
0905 Hours, October 14 aboard the independent vessel Starkillerrd, 2570
Simon had left the cockpit area and was heading down to the Starkiller's cargo bay when Diana piped up from his prosthetic arm.
"Mordred?" she asked, wisely choosing not to use his real name while they were within David Kahn's ship—a vessel notorious for possessing a highly intrusive security system.
He stopped and adjusted the strap of the equipment duffel on his shoulder. "Yeah? What is it?"
"You lost track of the time again, dumbass."
"How many times are we going to go through this until you can get your own damn schedule down? It's been forty-eight hours since you took your last dose. You're just lucky I'm around to remember these things for you."
Simon didn't even bother to rise to the A.I.'s goading. He quickly let the duffel slip to the grated metal floor, bent over, and opened one of the bag's side pockets. Reaching inside with his gauntleted organic hand, he felt around for a moment before withdrawing a small black bag. Unzipping it, he selected a small bottle filled with a thick pale capsules. After a moment's hesitation, he unscrewed the container and downed several of the capsules at once, crushing them between his teeth..
"Shit," he muttered as the foul taste of the liquid contained within the capsules spread across his tongue and throat, forcing him to fight down the urge to gag. "I hate this fucking stuff."
Diana snickered. "It's stuff like that that makes me grateful I can't taste any of the filth you meatbags put in your mouths."
Simon returned the bottlel to the black bag and inspected the rest of its contents. Of the twenty bottles contained within, six were empty.
"I'm getting low," he mused absently as he stuffed the bag back into the duffel's pocket. "Good thing this job's paying as well as it is. We can buy more next time we can find a Syndicate dealer."
Diana's only response was to huff irritatedly. "Those puppies aren't cheap, you know. If you weren't blowing so much money on them we could live a lot better than we do right now."
Simon stood and lifted the bag up to his shoulder again. "I'm getting sick of living like this, and you aren't helping. Just shut up about it."
"You mean until you forget to take your next dose?"
Simon clenched his teeth in frustration, though only a small amount of it was directed at Diana. Without another word, he continued on his way to the cargo hold, where he'd be sleeping for the duration of the Starkiller's flight.
1400 Hours, February 28th, 2569 (20 months ago)
The smoke rising from the mountain could still be seen for miles.
As Urei 'Cazal flew his Seraph away from it, he was careful not to give his position away. Although the smoke in the air thickened and made the camouflaged fighter even harder to see, and anyone in the area were either dead or long gone. But he wasn't completely invisible, and the ship hadn't made it out of the mountain undamaged. Plasma was leaking from a dozen spots in its armour, and the stray radiation emitting from the damaged components couldn't all be covered up.
However damaged the Seraph was, the Sangheili was in far worse condition. When the mountain collapsed, a couple of the support beams in the control room had miraculously held, and were kept in place by the boulders that had crashed down on the unfortunate soldiers inside. Urei spent hours digging his way through the rubble and trying to find a way out. He often ran into dead ends, backtracked when the spaces between the rocks were too narrow to squeeze through, and more than once waited with dread as the remains of the shifting mountains caused smaller yet still deadly avalanches of giant stones to fall around him. His forearms and fingers were bloody from crawling, one of his legs were broken when a rock fell on it (he was lucky not to have been killed right there), and his armour was broken beyond any repair, blood dripping out of the rents in the metal.
Urei had to fight down the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and just the thought of being surrounded by miles of rock deep underground had stirred panic in him (as it would even the most courageous warriors). Fighting the urge to lie still and die, he continued onward, breathing in the dusty air, forcing aside any bodies that obstructed him, and going in any direction that he could, he somehow made it to a hangar. He found a few battered but operable Seraphs, and without hesitation, took one of them and flew as far away from the wreckage of the mountain as he could.
Now that he was in relative safety, the former leader of the Fallen watched the fighter's viewscreen warily. His hands clenched around the grips of his seat, leaving bloody impressions on it. His own pain was nothing in comparison to everything he had lost. The organization he had rallied, his fellow leaders, their efforts to beat the Interspecies Union...all gone now.
Urei took the Seraph out of the atmosphere and toward the moon Qikost. He had left a stealth corvette hidden there and kept in good maintenance. I must leave for now. The last of those loyal to me are aboard. I will return when I am ready.
When he was in range, he contacted the ship, and arranged a meeting point on the far side of the moon. The quartermaster recognized his signature, and allowed the fighter to enter the corvette's hangar. As he gave orders for them to leave the system and was taken immediately to the medical deck, he finally relaxed. His wounds would heal, but the attack on the mountain had ignited a new fire in him. And when I discover who brought this upon me, I will personally slay them all until their debt of blood has been paid.
Urei closed his eyes. You will be avenged, my brothers.
1400 Hours, March 9th, 2569 (20 months ago)
"Excellency, we are here," a subordinate reported as he entered the medical facility. Urei opened his eyes and leaned upward slightly, wincing as pain immediately flared at the movement. For the past week he had been getting as much rest as he could, giving orders only when necessary. He was almost completely well, but his body was covered in scars that weren't completely healed yet.
"Where?" he asked.
"It is a habitable planet we found that holds no presence from the Interspecies Union. And we must set down somewhere."
"Good." He was getting sick of staying in the corvette. When the subordinate stood still, the former Fallen leader asked, "Was there something else?"
There was a moment of hesitation. "Yes. This planet seems to be inhabited...by Sangheili. But we have watched them, and they don't seem to be part of the Interspecies Union. It looks as if they have been here for a while."
Urei thought about this for a second. "What are they doing?"
"They seem to be looking for something. They hold quite an abundance of Forerunner artefacts, most likely taken from the planet. They are armed, but seem to be living here passively rather than guarding something. And they are disorganized, Excellency. Their activity seem to be for individual purposes rather than a faction. I doubt that they have a leadership at all."
Interesting. Perhaps this can be work to my advantage. He carefully sat up, and stood slowly. "Make contact and arrange a meeting. I must speak with them."
"Excellency, perhaps we should wait until—"
Urei's temper surfaced for the first time since the destruction of their base. The exaggerated patience he held onto for the past week evaporated in an instant. "Make contact with them now! Or I will have you executed for insubordination!"
"Yes, Excellency." As the subordinate hurried out of the room, the former Fallen leader slammed his fist at the wall in frustration. Too late, he remembered that he was still injured, and a lance of pain shot up his arm. Gritting his teeth, he walked out of the medical facility as well, wincing with each step.
Urei gazed at the terrain below him as his Phantom headed towards the surface. This planet was once Forerunner, no doubt. The land patterns looked as if they were originally natural, but was reworked by tier-1 technology. The atmosphere and gravity was a bit lighter than that of Sanghelios, adjusted to the Forerunners' preference. And there were intact structures placed in seemingly random patterns with ancient glyphs on the metal. Some of the Sangheili on the ground were looking warily at the dropship. It looked as if they were moving things around, most likely Forerunner artefacts.
The Phantom reached a forest clearing, and flew around it once before settling in to land. There was a group of the Sangheili waiting for them. Urei counted eight of them, maybe more in the area watching. All armed.
The dropship hovered a foot above the ground, and its hatches opened. Urei stepped out with his guards, and approached the others. The forest was very quiet.
As he walked up to the Sangheili that looked like the leader, he noticed that he was observing him as well. The others were cautious but not tense. They looked disciplined but unorganized. Perhaps I can change that.
Urei decided to take the initiative. "Greetings, brothers. Thank you for your time. I am Urei 'Cazel, leader of the Fallen."
The leader gave a slight nod. "I am Ruji 'Geran. What brings you here?"
He decided to be honest. "Our war against the Interspecies Union," he said carefully. "The humans and Sangheili alike."
The other Sangheili's eyes flickered slightly with interest. "It has been a long time since we have seen Sanghelios. You oppose their decision to ally with the humans too?"
"Yes. They have committed a great dishonour in doing so, and we have fought them for a very long time. May I ask why your kind has come here?"
"When the Covenant cast us out, we sought to find our own way to the Path. We split from those who would not believe in the Journey anymore."
One of Urei's guards twitched. Fortunately, the others did not notice. Urei paused. So these Sangheili still believed in the Covenant's old ways. That could mean trouble.
But they seemed to be good soldiers. And they had great numbers. They would prove useful for the time being.
"Ah, the Journey," he said in a light voice. "Another reason we fought against the Union. I am glad to see that you have not forgotten it." His other guard looked surprised for a moment, but knew better than to question his leader.
"This planet is abundant in Forerunner resources," 'Geran said. "We have been searching for a way to locate the remaining Halo rings here."
"We can help you," Urei said. "We know the ways of the Interspecies Union. They are very resourceful, and have been finding Forerunner artifacts. If we join forces, and gather our brothers here, we can defeat them, take the artifacts from their unworthy possession, and commence the Journey at last!"
There was a pause. "You can do all this?"
Urei smiled inwardly. He had no doubt that all the Sangheili on this planet would be soon under his command. "And more, my friend. I can lead us onto the Path, without the interference of the humans, or the treachery of the Covenant. We can make our pact, and leave the old ways behind. We will become greater than the Covenant itself!"
The two Sangheili clasped hands. "It will be done," 'Geran said.
0600 Hours, October 23rd, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar), aboard UNSC Aeolus-class frigate Independent Crusader, in orbit around planet C329t (UNSC Designation Beta-14), uncharted system (current time)
Cody-D1274 was completely silent as he stood next to the closed Pelican hatch. There were Marines sitting inside the dropship, talking among each other, checking on weapons and equipment, or looking out the front window nervously. He was tempted to contact the other Spartans on his team just for something to do, but decided against it. The Spartans had all been assigned to different transports, to different warships even, in case the task group's arrival at Beta-14 would be a chaotic one. It had always been a known strategy not to group a military force's most powerful soldiers together in case a well-placed attack took them all out, but this was kind of pushing it.
Given a choice, he would have rather been stationed with his subordinates, Basilisk Team. There was something reassuring about just being together. Again, Cody wanted to make sure that everything was okay. He wouldn't have been surprised if Sophia had gotten into a disagreement with another soldier or something. She could be grouchy at times, but was a loyal soldier and cared a lot for her team. He just needed to keep an eye on her all the time.
The Spartan NCO realized that his thoughts were drifting. He had to focus on what was ahead. His old mentor, Ezekiel-254, had always advised him to keep his eyes and ears sharp for anything that could be useful information for an upcoming mission. So far, all he had been told by his CO, Felix-116, was that they were to land on the surface and await further orders. A series of rendezvous points had been tagged in case something happened. Well, there's nothing I can really do to make this trip to the surface any faster.
There was no information of use inside the dropship, that was for sure. Cody cast his gaze out the Pelican's front window. They were making a steady but rapid descent, almost vertically. The ship was still outside Beta-14's gravity pull, so the soldiers inside the dropship were drifting slightly in their straps. He could see large masses of mountains, forests, and rivers that seemed to seep into the land. He could almost make out the tall hills that occupied the land in large masses. The ocean bodies took up a relatively small proportion of the planet.
It reminded him vaguely of Reach, where he was born. He remembered what the Covenant did to his homeworld, and wondered if the same fate awaited this place. It seemed so peaceful, and so normal...it was rather disconcerting. Although Felix hadn't said it in so many words, Cody guessed that there was some source to what the Forerunners had left behind here. That was most likely what the Sangheili were after, and what would they do after they obtained it?
Cody realized that his thoughts were drifting again. He looked away from the window, and decided to plan ahead for the mission. Anything could happen during or after their trip down to the surface, and he knew that it was better to think ahead and see all the possibilities. And since the Sangheili were already here, they would have the home field advantage. He had to assume that the aliens were capable of military tactics, and could potentially take up arms against the UNSC. Thinking back to his observations, the Chief Petty Officer mentally plotted out ways to put the human forces on even ground...
"My ship's in position, Admiral," Commander Evelyn Feng reported. "Looks like Captain Montrose has gotten the others in this sector locked down too."
"Good," replied Lash. On the viewscreen, she watched as the Admiral adjusting his communications to the command freq. "Keep your guns powered down, boys and girls, but keep them on standby. We never know when we're going to need them."
"When are we expecting the hostiles, Admiral?" came the voice of Commander Stephen Manderscheid.
"Give them a couple days. Then we'll have half the rebels, pirates, and mercenaries on our asses for the rest of the mission."
The Admiral sounded exasperated. Feng knew that he was frustrated with the fact that even ONI wasn't doing a good job of keeping operations secret. "Either the spooks are getting sloppy, or the rebels are getting more ambitious." Then again, it was hardly easy to keep such as mission like this quiet, especially with such a large task force in orbit around this place.
To be honest, she really hated these kinds of missions. She would be stuck on board her ship for days on end, doing routine checks and patrolling repeatedly until something showed up. That was when people started dying.
Looking at the mission log again, Feng made sure that everything she needed to do right now was done. The Spartans and Marines that were assigned to land on Beta-14 were all deployed, and the backup soldiers were all at their posts aboard the Aurora Borealis. Weapons were powered down but kept on standby, as Lash had asked. She directed her gaze to the planet instead. She wondered whether the ground units had any luck with whatever they were doing. They probably aren't bored out of their minds, at least...
Gunnery Sergeant Raphael Esquival-Cortez was bored out of his mind. His landing on the surface of Beta-14 was normal enough, but after finding the LZ and hunkering down with his squad, there really was nothing else to do. He had checked his equipment at least six times in the last half hour.
What the hell were they waiting for? Every ODST in the makeshift camp were ready to move out, but no orders came in from space either. Raphael was tempted to ask his CO if there was anything he'd missed on, but decided against it. It would only be an annoyance to pester him about it.
As if summoned by his thoughts, the voice of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Forenson emanated from the Sergeant's COM. "Cortez? Are your boys ready?"
Ready? No, we've just been waiting around for the last hour. Raphael didn't know why he was feeling so irritated. He looked from one ODST, who was flipping stones into a nearby river, to another who was looking at his own reflection with his helmet visor, the Sergeant answered, "Yes, sir."
"Good. Your team will be proceeding to grid twenty-two by nineteen. Spartan Basilisk Team will be meeting you there."
"Understood, sir. We're Oscar Mike." Raphael cut the connection, and gave the "move out" gesture to his squad. They picked up their gear and followed him down the river.
Grid twenty-two by nineteen was a long way from their current position. But at least moving gave them a purpose. They were finally getting somewhere.
Simon rested his assault rifle on a tree branch and checked one of several long-ranged sensors that he and Kahn had concealed along the perimeter of the Starkiller's landing zone. Each was relatively small--roughly the size of a satchel charge—and each was outrageously expensive; not the sort of gear that most of the galaxy's mercenaries used. But David Kahn was not amongst "most" mercenaries in terms of finances: at the rates he charged for his services, he could afford the best in military hardware.
This sensor had been partially buried under one of the millions of shrubs that littered the planet's forested surface. It was already transmitting constant feedback to the Starkiller's cockpit, but Kahn wanted to make sure that none broke or were tampered with. And while Simon hated having to leg it around this miserable forest every other hour to check the ten-odd sensors, he couldn't find fault with his partner's thoroughness. Having a UNSC task force in orbit was bad enough. The thought of being ambushed by the government's crack troops was even worse.
To be entirely honest, he'd considered ditching the job entirely and finding some way off this rock nearly a dozen times since the UNSC had first shown up. The last thing he needed was for his old leaders to learn that Gamma Company's traitor Spartan was still alive. The only thing that was keeping him on (aside from his fear of what Kahn might do to him if he turned into a liability) was the four million credits waiting for him at the end of all this.
But reassuring thoughts like that only produced more doubts. He and Kahn had been sitting here for more than a week and he and Diana had yet to see a single Sangheili, let alone the one they were supposed to be kidnapping. Occasionally Kahn would go off for hours at a time, but would never tell Simon about where he was going and what he was doing.
0400 Hours, October 24th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar), aboard UNSC frigate Hyperion, in orbit around planet C329t (UNSC Designation Beta-14), uncharted system
Commander Seth Dunston had just received word that all ground units, military or civilian, were on the surface when it happened. His communications officer was the first to notice.
"Slipspace rupture! Covenant ships on approach."
Dunston felt a quick moment of surprise, coupled with a twinge of fear. Then it passed. Broadcasting to the fleet, he said, "Admiral Lash? We've got trouble."
"Acknowledged," replied the older officer. "We're prepared for this, everyone. You know what to do. Bring your guns up, and stay in your assigned sector. Keep your firing solutions at the aliens." Earlier, Lash had placed the fleet into sectors, and balanced them according to class, size, and firepower. Even firing in another sector's general direction could be dangerous. And as long as the ships held their ground, the Covenant wouldn't win.
"How the hell did they get here so quickly?" muttered Lieutenant Megan Silverwood, the weapons officer.
"No time to think about that now, Lieutenant," said Dunston grimly. "It's time to roll. Take the MAC gun off standby, and get me some targets."
The Covenant ships moved towards the fleet, their weapons glowing red with energy.
"You know, I thought we'd be getting somewhere by now," remarked Ebony. Felix scowled.
"We have made progress. The leader of those Sangheili has agreed to talk to us later today. We're to meet at the waterfall that Commander Feng located."
"I know. That's not what I mean," the AI said. "I thought we'd be either talking with those aliens or killing them by now."
"You're so optimistic," the Spartan officer replied. "Sometimes you remind me of Cortana."
The Lieutenant Commander didn't particularly like having an AI stuck inside his head. In his experience from Project ORION, it was best to use one's own resourcefulness, or work as a team with other soldiers. And AIs could be irksome at times. But ONI had insisted that he try working with one for this op. So far, he didn't find it helpful. Then again, this op was far from over.
"Sir, I see the waterfall a ways off," said Lance Corporal Adrian Mandaloniz. "We should get moving."
Felix nodded. "I hear you, Corporal." He stood up from the boulder he had been sitting on, and picked up his rifle.
"Commander, I'm picking up movement," Ebony said, her voice suddenly turning sharp.
"It's just the squad," he said dismissively.
"No, it's something else. I—"
"Contact!" shouted Staff Sergeant Andrea Saldivar. The sound of gunfire broke the serenity in the air.
Felix heard movement behind him. Reacting instinctively, he turned around, ducking the bullets that flew over his head, and returned fire. His Assault Rifle sprayed 7.62 millimetre rounds at a camouflage-armour human, and he fell. Not even pausing to examine who he had just killed, he switched targets, taking down more of the hostiles.
The fight was over in less than a minute. Some of the Marines took hits, but there were no serious injuries. As they recuperated, Ebony asked, "What do you think?"
Felix was now looking at the body of one of the camouflaged humans. "I think we've just had our first run-in with a bunch of pirates."
"That's not what I mean." She really loved to use that phrase. Then again, the AI often said things in a very vague manner. "You know I detected them first, right?"
The Spartan rolled his eyes. Despite the sudden attack, he could tell that Ebony was enjoying this. But she was right.
"Okay, you win. Maybe I should trust you a bit more."
The voice of Cody-D1274 came over his COM. "Lieutenant Commander? We've got trouble."
"What is it, Chief?" Felix asked.
"Captain Montrose said there's Covenant that just arrived in space. A couple of their dropships made it down to the surface."
The senior Spartan kept his frustration in check as he replied in a neutral voice, "Acknowledged. I'm getting to the meeting point now with the Sangheili. Tell the others to keep their eyes peeled. Protect the civilians."
"Roger that sir. D1274 out."
Felix turned to the Marines, some of whom were still patching up. "Sorry to cut this party short, everyone. But we have to move now. We're on a tight schedule."
0900 Hours, October 24 aboard the independent vessel Starkillerrd, 2570
The unthinkable had happened.
An artificial intelligence construct had somehow managed to bypass the Starkiller's dozens of programming barriers, legions of counter-intrusion software drones, and what amounted to an impenetrable fortress of firewalls and gain access to the ship's systems.
Fortunately--or perhaps unfortunately--for the ship's owner, this particular A.I.'s intentions were not hostile. At least, not directly.
David Kahn prided himself on his ability to keep his cool even when someone--usually someone with a very low life expectancy--tried to provoke him, but this A.I. seemed to specialize in pissing off just about everyone she came into contact to. Even he wasn't completely immune to her unique skill.
"I thought I told you," he said, pronouncing each word slowly so that they wouldn't come through gritted teeth. "That you aren't allowed in my ship's systems. Ever."
Diana did a small twirl on the holotank as she grinned up at him. "Whoops," she said, raising her hands in an innocent shrug. "Guess I forgot about that rule. My memory files can get so messy sometimes."
Kahn couldn't help but find it disconcerting that he was being talked back to by a schoolgirl. A small, hologram of a schoolgirl to be sure, but that didn't make it any less surreal. "Did Mordred upload you?" he demanded, though he doubted that the kid would have had the nerve to defy him, even behind his back.
The A.I. waved a pale, translucent hand dismissively. "Oh, please. It's not like I need that dumbass for everything, you know."
She stared up at him expectantly for several moments, and Kahn knew exactly what she was after. And as much as he didn't want to give her any sort of satisfaction for sneaking into his ship, he couldn't just pass up an opportunity to learn about whatever flaw in his security that Diana had exploited.
He sighed and gave in. "How did you do it?" he asked wearily, wondering how Mordred managed to put up with her on a daily basis.
Diana smirked and casually smoothed the front of her skirt. "Oh, it wasn't too difficult," she said loftily. "I just piggybacked a signal off of one of the transmitters you had us set up on the perimeter and followed it back here. I've done it a million times with the dumbass, it really isn't that big of a deal."
She frowned and cocked her head, lifting a hand to gracefully part her blonde hair. "But the thing is," she said, letting out a sigh of mock regret. "With a reputation like yours, I was expecting something a little harder to crack. I've run into drug stores with better firewalls on their computers."
Kahn resisted the urge to empty a clip into the holotank, if only to shut her up for a few moments. But then she'd be jeering at him over the intercom and he'd waste time and credits installing a new one later. As things were, he'd already need to purge the Starkiller's computer as soon as possible now that this insufferable A.I. had been able to root around in it, and that alone would take several hours to complete. And right now, Kahn didn't have several hours.
Settling down into the pilot's chair, Kahn activated the ship's secure communications system and opened a channel. "Alright, Ro'nin, we're clear."
A pause, then a gravelly voice crackled over the channel in reply. "Are you sure?"
Kahn shot a stony look at Diana, who just smirked back at him. "Yes," he said into the radio. "No eavesdroppers."
"You can never be too sure," the Sangheili mercenary grumbled. Kahn had known Ro'nin since the disgraced warrior had started taking freelance jobs; they'd been sitting at the same table negotiating a weapons deal when one of Kahn's younger associates--no longer amongst the living, just like so many others--had given Ro'nin his odd name. Ro'nin was one of the few mercs out there who, like Kahn and Mordred, made most of his living as a solo freelancer. Solo, that is, if you didn't count his formidable partner.
"You got my message, I take it?" Kahn asked, leaning back and doing his best to get his mind completely off Diana and onto the job at hand.
"Of course," Ro'nin replied. "Personally, I never thought that Idat 'Ostal gave a damn about any of his children, but if what you say is true than I misjudged him completely. And now you want me to get involved with the Path Walkers. You have an incentive, I presume?"
"Yes." Now Kahn was treading on dangerous ground. He was already about to shell out four million of his payoff to Mordred, and he wasn't about to go to all this trouble just to take less than half of the full deal. Fortunately, he knew Ro'nin better than almost anyone. "Five hundred thousand."
"Are you trying to insult me?" Ro'nin asked, sounding almost angry. "You want me to give you intelligence on the Path Walkers and help you assault them and you think I'll just be taking five hundred thousand?"
"I don't think," Kahn corrected him calmly. "I know. Business hasn't been all that good lately, has it?"
Silence for a moment. Then Ro'nin's voice returned, carrying an almost sulking tone to it. "Seven fifty thousand."
Kahn allowed himself a brief smile. "Done."
"Perhaps the great David Kahn hasn't noticed, but business is bad for everyone right now." Ro'nin sounded as if he were glad to have someone to complain to. "The Fallen were good for everyone's business. Now that they're gone... well, you're seeing for yourself what happens when the Interspecies Union gets involved with a planet that's supposed to be outside their jurisdiction."
"You could move back to the settled planets," Kahn suggested mildly. "There's always work there, even with the colonial governments breathing down your neck."
Ro'nin snorted. "And bow before the Syndicate? That's one criminal element the Union hasn't managed to tamper in the slightest; now it looks like the Syndicate's looking to control all mercenary activity in human and Sangheili space."
"The IU could do with less politicians who eat out of the Syndicate's hand," Kahn noted. "Not that I care one way or the other. You could try Famul if you're really desperate."
Another harumph of contempt. "Ever since Mallunus died, that place has been terrible for business as well. The new chieftain's a joke; everyone knows that Shinsu 'Refum's the one who's really running the show there."
Kahn raised an eyebrow. "The Black Knight of Sanghelios? Wasn't he with the Fallen?"
"You're getting out of touch, Kahn," Ro'nin sneered. "Shinsu split with the Fallen back when Mallunus died. He has his own plans now, not that they concern either of us at the moment."
"Someone who controls Famul's resources could be a pretty good employer," Kahn told the Sangheili mercenary. "It sounds like you're the one who's killing all of your own opportunities."
"Yes, Shinsu does plenty of hiring out through his subordinates," Ro'nin admitted. "But I don't like him. Idealists like that are too dangerous to be trusted."
"In any case," Kahn said, opening a holographic map of the area beside him. "We need to meet up to discuss things personally."
"I pick the spot," Ro'nin declared immediately.
"Fine," said Kahn. "Take your time; you know where to call me."
"At least Kenpachus will be happy to go attack the Path Walkers," Ro'nin muttered as he cut off the communication. "Because I'm certainly not."
Diana had generated an armchair to seat her avatar in and was steepling her hands in front of her face as if she were a detective in some second-rate mystery e-novel. "You two've certainly gotten yourselves in a bit of a hole, haven't you?" she asked cheerfully. "I don't think any of us want the UNSC goons to come give us a taste of their exceptional hospitality, and now we've got to pull off an assault on these Path Walker guys right under they're noses. Y'know, if Mordred had known this would happen I don't think he'd have taken the job."
Kahn snorted, half at the A.I.'s comments and half at himself for even lowering himself to conversing with her. "He'd have taken it. Four million credits is a lot of money, and he's not good at hiding the fact that he's desperate for some cash."